Alan on electric scooter“Buy one, Daddy!” That’s what my daughter Kathryn said after her recent ride behind Daily Score reader Jay Morrison on his all-electric scooter. Jay’s Vectrix captured her fifteen-year-old heart. Just seeing it roll up in front of the house sent her scurrying to her closet for her most Italian-looking scarf, which then fluttered in the breeze as she toured the neighborhood. She rhapsodized about being picked up from soccer practice in such style. (Apparently, being picked up on my tandem is déclassé.)

Car-less I remain, but as my kids’ peak soccer season (and peak Zip-car bills) overtake me, I’ve been thinking about motor scooters. Apparently, I’m not alone: motor scooters are selling like never before in the Northwest. In fact, last year and this year to date, two-wheeler sales (including both scooters and motorcycles) are outpacing sales of passenger cars even in auto-friendly Boise and surrounding Ada County, Idaho.

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  • For short, in-city trips that don’t require traveling at high speeds—like, say, delivering someone to soccer practice four miles from home over city streets, a motor scooter seems like a useful addition to my quiver of personal urban transportation options: foot, bicycle, public transit, taxi, and Zipcar. A scooter seems especially attractive for a newly single dad of a fifteen-year-old daughter. Her younger brother and I are usually happy to cycle just about anywhere, but she is more prone to respond to a suggestion that she don her bike helmet and pedal where she wants to go with, “Hello?! Teenage girl! Hair!!!” (Releasing her glowing tresses from of a motorcycle helmet, apparently, would be a style plus, not a minus.)

    Gasoline-powered motor scooters are old and familiar technology. They carry tens of millions of people in China and India, as they did in southern Europe in the post-war years. In developing countries, motor scooters cost as little as $300 apiece, which helps explain why an estimated one-third of the world’s motorized vehicles are two-wheelers.

    Here in Cascadia, of course, motor scooters and motorcycles make up less 4 percent of motor vehicles (and a smaller share of miles driven). Still, their numbers appear to be rising quickly, as this figure shows. As a share of all vehicles, they are heading back into the range of their peak popularity—the 1970s. (In fact, if my eyes don’t deceive me, two-wheelers numbers move up and down with the price of gasoline.) (I assembled this chart from Federal Highway Administration information, but I guesstimated the 2007 and 2008 figures based on press reports I’ve seen about surging sales of scooters and motorcycles.

    Share of scooters in NW over time

    Motor-scooter Pros: Motor scooters are impressively fuel efficient. Some gasoline-powered ones can go more than 100 miles per gallon. Their carbon footprints, while larger than bicycles’, are small. They’re affordable: imported Chinese models cost less than $1,000 online (although some of these models don’t comply with air-quality rules in North America), and even the category-leading brands such as Vespa sell some of their models for under $4,000.

    Motor-scooter Cons: As you probably know, motorized two-wheelers are more dangerous for their passengers than just about any other form of personal transportation. Lots more dangerous. I’d only want to ride one slowly and away from heavy traffic—sort of like I ride my bicycle.

    What you may not know is that motor scooters, like motorcycles, are dramatically worse for local air quality than passenger cars, pick-ups, and SUVs. The problem is that pollution-control equipment is hard to fit on a small vehicle. The Idaho Statesman examined the issue in its August 8 article “Is your scooter a polluter?” (No link; it’s behind the Statesman’s pay wall.)

    “The cleanest scooter is still dirtier than a car,” said John Swanton, air pollution specialist with the California Air Resources Board.

    . . .

    Some motorcycles emit as much hydrocarbon in 10 miles as a car driven 850 miles, according to Environmental Protection Agency studies.

    Car engines use much more fuel and create more pollution than motorcycle engines, but sophisticated emission-control devices prevent much of a car’s emissions from getting into the air, said Wayne Elson, environmental protection specialist with the EPA’s Seattle office.

    When it comes to reducing fuel consumption and improving global climate conditions, a motorcycle or scooter is still the better choice, Swanton said.

    But when it comes to reducing smog and improving local air quality, “the Hummer is better than a small scooter because it has more sophisticated emission controls,” he said. “Its emissions are pretty low relative to a motorcycle.”

    Motorcycles and scooters that meet EPA emission standards are still more polluting than cars because the federal emission standards are more lenient for motorcycles.

    The maximum emission standard for motorcycle hydrocarbon and nitrogen oxide is 2.25 grams per mile, compared with .098 for cars, meaning a motorcycle can emit 23 times more ozone-forming pollutants as a car does and still meet EPA standards. The carbon monoxide standard for motorcycles is about six times higher than a car’s standard.

    EPA’s air quality rules for new motorcycles and motor scooters are scheduled to tighten in 2010 (pdf), but they’ll remain far laxer than are the rules for four-wheelers (pdf, see page 3).

    That’s why I don’t so much want a motor scooter. For rural riding, where air quality isn’t an issue, a scooter might be fine. But for city travel? I don’t want the karma of six or twenty-three cars’ worth of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, or carbon monoxide.

    Nope, I don’t want a gasoline-powered motor scooter. Electric ones might be a different story, which is why I invited Jay to bring his bike over and show it off.

    Electric motor scooters cause no degradation of local air. Because of their smaller mass, their range and recharge speeds are much better than those of electric cars, which I worried about while test-driving a plug-in hybrid last fall.

    Electric scooters come in a variety of sizes and designs, but the Vectrix is one that’s pow
    erful enough to carry two. It can run at highway speeds (faster than I’d want to go) and has a 50-mile range between charges. Video here and here. (Hat tip to Jay.)

    It recharges fully in three hours, using only about 40 cents’ worth of electricity in the process. That means fueling the Vectrix costs about a penny a mile.

    electric scooter CO2 per passenger mile

    The electric scooter is also a big winner for the climate, with emissions about a tenth as great as driving a Prius, and about a thirtieth as great as driving an SUV. I estimate (calculations below) that a Vectrix operating in Cascadia generates about 1/20th of a pound of CO2 per mile—all of it coming from the power plants that charge its batteries. Looking at Sightline’s chart of greenhouse impacts of different vehicles, I see that the Vectrix has a bigger carbon footprint than a bicycle. But it’s still exceptionally clean.

    Of course, electric scooters have disadvantages as well. Like all electric vehicles, their range is a fraction of liquid-fueled vehicles’ ranges. Three hours is a lot longer to refuel than the minute or so it takes to refill the tank of a gasoline scooter. Unlike gas scooters, electric ones employ new, glitch-prone technology, as you can see by skimming this website where owners of Vectrixes exchange technical tips. Last but not least, electric scooters cost more up front: about $8,800 for a new Vectrix, plus taxes and registration (plus helmets and protective clothing). The cost per mile, if you believe Vectrix’s own numbers, is attractive: it’s cheaper than a gas scooter overall.

    Yep, if I had that kind of money lying around—or access to an innovative energy-conservation loan—I might just buy one.

    Note on calculations: Vectrix has published its own assessment of its air quality and climate impacts (pdf). To compare the Vectrix in greenhouse gas emissions per mile in Cascadia, however, I did my own math. Vectrix’s battery capacity is rated at 3.7kWh and its range is rated at 50 miles, which yields an energy efficiency of .074 kWh/mile. At the Northwest’s power system’s marginal CO2 production rate of 0.7 pounds per kWh, the Vectrix generates .052 pounds CO2 per mile.